No foreign relationship is more important to the US than its bond with Mexico. With no other country is sustained cooperation - on trade, drugs, immigration, and many other issues - more central to US well being.
Yet, year after year, US-Mexican relations are strained and embittered by the US drug certification process, which requires the White House and Congress to determine whether Mexico and 30 other "drug supplier" countries are reliable allies in the fight against illicit narcotics. Certification is a controversial policy, and every year its value is debated. But for Mexico, at least, there is a good alternative - a US-Mexican bilateral anti-drug agreement.
Since the procedure was initiated in 1986, Mexico has never been denied certification - nor will it be this year, or probably any time in the future. Too many vital US interests are at stake to allow US-Mexican relations to be thrown into turmoil. So each year, we witness the same ritual: The White House endorses Mexico's certification on March 1. Congress starts its month-long review, in which members denounce the Mexican government for drug war failures and corruption. In the end, the president's determination stands, and Mexico is "certified."
The ritual is insulting to Mexico, and provokes distrust and antagonism. It also pits different US agencies against one another. Clearly, the prospect of decertification puts some pressure on Mexico and propels it to direct more attention and resources to anti-drug measures than it otherwise might. It's no coincidence, for example, that the Mexican government this month - just weeks before the certification deadline - launched a $500 million counter-narcotics campaign. But this kind of forced cooperation is resented by Mexico, and does not establish much basis for an enduring partnership.
There's a better way. Through the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US has developed a special trade relationship with Mexico. The US-Mexico Bilateral Commission is a unique arrangement that brings most cabinet-level officials of both countries together regularly. A similar arrangement should be established for addressing our common drug problem.
The idea is straightforward. Mexico and the US would replace the annual certification process by negotiating a bilateral counter-narcotics agreement. Both sides would commit to jointly determined anti-drug measures and performance goals, and to agreed-upon procedures for enforcement, monitoring, and dispute settlement. This may not be that difficult.
Mexico and the US have already reached accord on more than a hundred specific drug-fighting initiatives, which are in various stages of implementation. The broader-ranging bilateral agreement that is proposed here would mostly be based on these accords.
Would the US Congress give its blessing to this sort of agreement and exempt Mexico from the certification ordeal? That is hard to know. Just 18 months ago, without any alternative to consider, 38 senators voted to declare a two-year moratorium on certification for all nations. In contrast, this proposal offers Congress a strong bilateral agreement in lieu of certification - and only one country is excluded from the process.
Would this be unfair to other countries or create an unwanted precedent for US policy? Clearly not.
The US reached a special trade deal with Mexico; there is no reason not to negotiate a special arrangement on narcotics. Over time, the best solution would be broad, multilateral arrangements for confronting narcotics problems, in which all countries agreed to a sharing of the burdens and responsibilities.
Although the Organization of American States has made some progress in this direction, there is little expectation that this effort can replace US certification any time soon. And a US agreement with Mexico could be a valuable forerunner of bilateral or multilateral US pacts with other countries - again with parallels to US-Mexican trade arrangements.
By reaching a bilateral agreement on counter-drug efforts and ending Mexico's annual certification trial, the US would advance two key foreign policy goals. It would remove a dangerous source of friction from the US-Mexican relationship - and probably make US-Mexican cooperation on narcotics more effective.
*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.